Pine Cove’s Camp in the City Combines Faith and Fun
By Susan Brown
Just being around E.J. “Pops” Hibbler is an energizing experience. He is “Christ-centered, others-focused and seriously fun” – the motto of the camp he brings to Baton Rouge every summer. Pine Cove’s Camp in the City, based in Tyler, Texas, is coming July 2-6 to the Chapel in the Oaks on Siegen Lane. It is a microcosm of effective mentoring for children: get into their world, genuinely enjoy who they are, and show them who they can become.
In the middle of the jam-packed week of water sliding, wall climbing, bungee trampoline jumping and hilarious competition, his team of college students has a mission: to teach the gospel and model a godly lifestyle. That includes a life lesson in obeying parents, something Hibbler learned when (against his mother’s stern warning) he lit a handful of fireworks behind the house leaving him with serious burns and the nickname “Pops.”
“Pine Cove exists to be used by God to transform the lives of people for his purposes and for his glory,” Hibbler said. “What kind of drives and fuels us is that we have college students who may be relevant [to kids], but they know that sin still exists and that we have to fight off that sin with the light we have in us by the Holy Spirit. ‘For it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’” (Philippians 2:13).
“‘The joy of the Lord is our strength.’ (Nehemiah 8:10b) when we’re jumping in the gauntlet, when we see those smiling faces and see a lot of sweating,” Hibbler said. “That’s what gets us through the summer – believing those scriptures wholeheartedly. You be wacky, you be joyful and you show them that they are loved.”
Camp in the City teams travel throughout the southeast all summer, from Texas to Oklahoma to South Carolina.
“The thing that we want them to walk away with is just identity – who they are,” Hibbler said. As trust builds, counselors have the opportunity to see the kids through God’s eyes, as important, loved and full of potential. His goals are “to instill identity, to have a church home or know a place where they can go, and to know the gospel, the saving news of Jesus Christ.”
But getting kids to open up can be tough. “First, we try to break down walls, to let them know that, hey, we don’t mind being silly, goofy, for the sake of your saying, ‘Oh, you’re crazy – and I think I like you.’”
His own story is one that tracks the steadfast love of God who works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:29). Adopted by his great-aunt when he was only two weeks old, E.J. grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi with his biological brother and a sister who “just popped in and out” of his life.
At his home church, Mt. Olive Baptist, relations became strained. His family pulled away from church for a couple of years while his mother recovered from the hurt she experienced there. Then, the House of the Lord Full Gospel Baptist Church sent a van to pick him up. “I just started growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord there, on my own, instead of grabbing onto my mom’s faith,” he said. “I knew the Lord had called me to ministry, ultimately.”
Hibbler was determined to become an engineer to earn enough money for his mom to have a better life. At Mississippi State, his friend Cortez McRaney showed him a verse of scripture that changed his course:
“Two things I request of you (Deprive me not before I die): Remove falsehood and lies far from me; Give me neither poverty nor riches – Feed me with the food allotted to me; Lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:7-9).
He decided to invest his life in the spiritual development of other people, something he could never claim to accomplish on his own. It was a huge step of faith.
Confident that God would provide financially, he gave up his engineering scholarship, changed his major to broadcast journalism and landed a freelance job with ESPN to help pay the bills – a job he still holds. With a student assistantship, he entered the meteorology program for a master’s degree with an ulterior motive – to stay near a girl he was dating. In the Student Union one day, he saw a Pine Cove booth and agreed to work at the Outback camp for kids.
“That’s when I had confirmation. I had a dream that the Lord was going to plant me in Texas, permanently,” he said. “Two weeks after that, I was offered a job to come and work for Camp in the City full-time. So, long story short, the Lord did it.”
Now, his prayer is to be part of God’s story: “We want them to leave with the gospel and its transforming power, that Christ came and lived a real life and walked amongst people,” Hibbler said. “He loved us so much that he died and rose up, conquering death, and he gave us a helper until the end of the days. He gave us the Holy Spirit.”
“We tell our counselors to remember what’s going on,” Hibbler said. “If there’s an issue – fear, hurt, low view of self – turn to the scriptures to talk identity into them. “Don’t blow that moment. If you have the chance for a ‘hang time,’ speak the words of life into them.”
“The second thing is knowing that there is a home within a church, because often times I think we get burned out with the same programmatic things. But these campers are coming for something more. They’re coming for Jesus.”
A pivotal moment for the team occurred in the aftermath of the July 2016 shooting in Baton Rouge. “We got a chance to see how Baton Rouge takes on racial differences and how they mend together as a city,” Hibbler said. They worried that campers from a majority African-American neighborhood would not come back.
“We prayed. We said in the name of Jesus, if you would allow these kids to get on this bus, we will make sure to love them,” Hibbler said. “We saw these campers already lined up at the edge of the road saying we will not let this separate us from an opportunity for them to hear the gospel. We will not let this moment stop our kids because they may go to a majority white church. It doesn’t matter; Christ is all that matters.’”
“These kids are in it for the whole experience – water slides, rock walls, camp cheers, team building and learning about Jesus with their peers,” said Lisette West, Kids Hope USA Director for the Chapel. “Campers talk about how their camp and life experiences relate to the Bible passages. Some make bold professions of faith and go on to be baptized over the summer,” West said.
Camp in the City draws kids from the Chapel, neighboring churches and the community, including Wildwood Elementary, a school that partners with the Chapel through Kids Hope USA. It is open to kids who are entering first through 6th grades.
“The kids are just spraying with water guns, loving these counselors, hanging onto them, saying they don’t want to leave,” Hibbler said. “So, when you come here from 9 to 4, you’re able to think about fun, Christ and being a kid. And when you leave here, you can remember Christ and look back on the fun that you’ve had.”
Pine Cove is a wonderful Christian camp,” Chapel Pastor Kevin McKee said. “This outstanding camp – when give the opportunity to export its infectious summer activities – chose the Chapel as one of the first churches to offer Camp in the City.” The Chapel has sent counselors, children and families to Pine Cove camps for some 30 years. “And God continues to use Christian camping to change lives and advance his kingdom and purposes,” McKee said.
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Susan Brown began her career in radio news. She was news director for WJBO/WFMF radio and a journalism instructor at LSU. She holds masters degrees from LSU and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminar, and served as Chaplain at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.